Travelogue: 48 hours in Napa Valley, California (April 2011)

Along with visiting family, Aron and I took a couple of days while we were in California to tour around the Napa Valley. Not only were we eager to collapse into a big, fluffy hotel bed and just relax, we’re conscious that we’ll be sharing the romance of travel with someone new soon and want to take every opportunity to sneak off together now. (In fact we were super-curmudgeonly and booked our stay at a no-kids-allowed hotel–more on that spot to come.)

Aron and I both grew up in California, so the Napa and Sonoma valleys aren’t completely new territory, but we have had a tendency to only visit a few favorite spots on day trips from Davis or San Francisco. We were determined to spread out and see the area with fresh eyes. So on our first day, with check-in not until 4pm,  we made a large loop, just taking in the scenery and getting a lay of the land.

We bypassed the town of Napa, knowing we would return there for our night’s stay, and stopped first in the small village of Yountville–most famous for that impossible-to-book restaurant (you may have heard of it), The French Laundry. Thomas Keller has three restaurants there, in fact: Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and French Laundry. We grabbed coffees and ogled the beautiful breads at the Bouchon bakery (of which there’s an outpost in Manhattan), before strolling along the few restaurant-filled blocks which seemed to comprise the town.

Next we passed through Oakville, where we stopped to browse a local favorite (since 1881), the Oakville Grocery, at the corner of Oakville Crossroad and Highway 29. We considered picking up some picnic provisions, but decided to save that for the next day. From there we drove north through St. Helena, where you’ll find Dean & Deluca–a New York favorite–as well as a cute, little (slightly posh) downtown, and on to Calistoga.

Calistoga was one of the first towns in the valley to become a tourist destination: back in the mid-19th century, a developer bought a few thousand acres with the intention that the natural hot springs around the area would draw tourists. Visitors made the trip by rail from San Francisco; the town still retains a sort of old-west feel today.

The most popular spa attraction today are probably mud baths–where one is immersed in hot volcanic ash–at classic, slightly kitschy spots like Doc Wilkinson’s. Something for another time.

We kept on our way. Some of the best bits were just stops along the side of the road, like a field of grazing horses somewhere between Calistoga and Healdsburg. Wildflowers were springing up everywhere and the grasses appeared tinged with purple in certain light.

We had a late lunch in the town of Healdsburg–which is in Sonoma. Its downtown is lovely and seemed more geared toward locals than some of the others (i.e. fewer art galleries). The streets angle around a pleasant central plaza, and it’s a good base for exploring the Russian river along with the Alexander valley wine region. The most famous restaurant in town–and one of the best in the area–is Cyrus, but we chose another recommended spot for lunch: Ravenous. We thought our parting view of the place was fitting: a women pulled a box of organic produce out of a Prius for delivery.

We also considered the pastry cases at Downtown Bakery and Creamery–where a Chez Panisse alum apparently makes a famous “donut muffin”–but opted for coffee from the Flying Goat instead.

I was also impressed by the town-cineplex’s concept, “Hollywood & Wine,” where a slightly higher ticket price (still less expensive than Manhattan’s) includes a wine bar and cozy leather seats with armrests that hold a glass of wine and a small plate.

The next part of our drive took us south through Santa Rosa (the largest town in Sonoma County) to Glen Ellen, where we crossed the mountains back into Napa Valley around Oakville. Just as I feared my stomach couldn’t take another bend, we pulled out into the valley and were faced with amazing views of the valley floor. The breeze when we stepped out of the car felt amazing (and calmed my stomach), and we couldn’t help but run to grab the camera again.

It was already four by this time and we couldn’t wait to get back to Napa and check out the Inn. We splurged on a super-luxurious spot, Milliken Creek Inn & Spa and were really eager to settle in.

Everyone at the hotel was so helpful–which was great because although we had collected so many great recommendations for places to eat (thank you all again!), we hadn’t made any reservations. We actually considered having something delivered in so that we wouldn’t have to leave the room, but decided instead just to stay close-by.

The Inn sits on the Napa river just off the Silverado Trail, so it wasn’t far into downtown. The riverfront complex has (fairly) recently welcomed a resurgence of activity with chefs like Morimoto moving in; we decided to try Celadon–won over partly by the menu, partly by their font decisions on the menu. It sits in the historic Hatt building.

After a warm breakfast-in-bed at the hotel, we set off to explore some more. We noted that the regional famers’ markets wouldn’t be opening until May, so we decided to make the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa our first stop.

The Oxbow Public Market was awesome! It reminded us a lot of the Ferry building in San Francisco (in fact I think I recognized a few vendors). There were so many places I would have liked to try (here’s a list); we both look forward to a return visit.

All of the beautiful cheeses and breads at the market inspired us to pick up provisions for a picnic, and then we high-tailed it up back up to Calistoga, from where we decided to rent bikes for a ride to St. Helena.

The original plan was to stop in St. Helena for a shake and a burger at the roadside stand, Gott’s (formerly Taylor’s Refresher)–a stop on a route we found on Jauntsetter before we left–but it was too hard to resist the call of cheese and bright red strawberries. We decided a shake would be dessert after the ride.


The ride took us from Calistoga to St. Helena via the scenic Silverado Trail–a hilly stretch that parallels Highway 29 and climbs 1000 feet in elevation in intervals over the course of about 10 miles. It was definitely challenging at times, but very doable.

We kept meaning to pull to the side and stop to eat, but we found we were very picky about just which winery’s grounds were scenic enough, off-the-beaten-track enough to warrant a picnic after working so hard. We finally landed on Duckhorn (pictured above), but learned they don’t allow outside food. So on we went.

It turned out to be the best choice we could have made. Even though we basically ended up riding all the way back to Calistoga (following Hwy 29 for a bit before cutting back to the Silverado Trail) and then stopping for lunch, the setting at Cuvaison was by far the best. I had noticed it when we first set out, but it was too early to eat then.

Aron bought a bottle of Chardonnay (can’t get enough of that California malolactic fermentation style–so buttery), and we shared some Cowgirl creamery cheese while sitting among poppies, vineyards, and groves of olive trees. It was one of those situations you can’t completely describe to anyone else without their being prompted to turn away and point a finger down their throat in a gester of “gag me.”

I highly recommend getting out of the car to ride a bike if you visit the area. Along with our hotel stay, it was a highlight of our trip (sunburnt hands and all). If we were to do it again, we might look into renting bikes in St. Helena (it would have made more sense considering our lunch stop and our starting destination), but either direction would be beautiful. We both agreed that the area around Calistoga was the prettiest for a cyclist.

I wouldn’t let Aron forget the shake stop at Gott’s–we’d earned that ice cream–but I can admit it now: it wasn’t anything special. They just blend pre-made ice cream and as we chose a banana fudge shake, this meant fake banana extract flavor (Aron wouldn’t touch it). I’d like to try the burgers sometime, but wish I could give more of an endorsement for such a cute stop.

Far, far better was our dinner. We had made early reservations at Redd in Yountville, but switched those to lunch when we decided we wanted a bit more time to freshen up after the ride. Instead we tried a spot called Farmstead in St. Helena (yes, we did feel a bit silly driving back there having just left). It was a tough call: we also really wanted to try Ubuntu. But farmstead also featured a simple farm-to-table menu, and it was exactly what we were hoping for. I got to have my asparagus (at a cost), and we were both especially wowed by the cornmeal cake we had for dessert.

We lingered at the hotel as long as we could (11 a.m.) the next morning over more breakfast-in-bed before taking one more look at the river and grabbing our coffees to-go. We had decided we would visit St. Helena’s downtown (which we had merely driven through previously) before our lunch date at Redd.

We especially loved the childrens’ section of a shop called Vintage Home–where we picked up a special souvenir to share with the baby

…and St. Helena Olive Oil, where everything was packaged in such minimalist, beautiful ways (and out for tasting) in a gorgeous, restored Bank building (dating from 1890, having originally housed the Bank of Italy).

Chef Richard Reddington’s Redd won me over immediately when they made me a custom mocktail and served it straight-up in a martini glass (it’s the little things). This one had lemongrass syrup, ginger ale, lemon juice, a touch of cranberry juice, and an orange peel.

We also loved the space–so bright and airy–and, most significantly, everything we tasted.

(sunchoke soup with gruyere panini and house-made potato chips)

 (caramelized scallops over pureed–and non-pureed–cauliflower, with some balsamic and raisins)

(ravioli with peas and butter and ricotta and some-such heavenly mix)

(glazed pork belly over fennel and apple with soy caramel)

It was so, so good–and probably a better deal at lunch than it would have been at dinner. We decided to pass up their desserts, however, knowing that we had strawberries in the car. Instead we supplemented them with a couple of pistachio macarons from Bouchon bakery as we went in search of one last winery stop on which to end the visit.

Aron had read about the beautiful setting at Bartholomew Park Winery, which happened to be just around the corner from our favorite–Buena Vista–in Sonoma. The property has trails and a museum and sits inside a 375-acre park–and used to be the site of a nudist colony I believe–and made for a nice final stop before we reluctantly went on our way.

A wine region might not seem an obvious choice for an expectant getaway, but we found plenty to enjoy. 

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